One third of the way
GSR 2023 had its own share of tribulations getting off the ground (or rather trying to stay ON the ground) and we had to compromise on our no-fly policy substantially. VISA and border issues prevented us entering Central Asia and we flew to Tbilisi, Georgia on April 17, the day of orthodox Easter. Most of us had never seen a post Soviet era city and were intrigued by the remnants of big and bold concrete structures as well as communal courtyards. We learned about Kartvelian heritage and started to slowly decipher its unique alphabet, and quickly fell in love with its cuisine. Crafted breads, cheeses and wines, perfected over centuries: what is not to love?
We also learned about the cultural heritage of public protest and people's power. Not that we now understand the intricacies of this society trying to calibrate between extreme communist and neoliberal economic models, but the fact that ordinary citizens keep showing up on the streets and seem to be heard at least occasionally is a hopeful sign in this era of rampant authoritarianism.
Our first point of call was the fledgling Ecovillage crew and its inspiring promoter Nini who was in the middle of publishing a book about herbal healing wisdom among rural women in the remote mountain area of Adjara. Combining ethnobotany and beautiful illustrations this is promising to be an epic publication and set us dreaming of a Green Silk Road publishing venture. What if we would weave together regional ecoliteracy educators, wisdom keepers and artists? Human-plant relationships have enough stories to tell to last multiple lifetimes.
But back to our current reality: we are but 5 Aurovilians stumbling across projects and people in Eurasia, while learning about ways to transport and house ourselves while we are at it. We had severely underestimated the cold in early spring. Mountains in Georgia were still covered in snow and the temperature was close to zero which meant almost a 40 degrees jump from India! Fortunately Nini had many extra sweaters and blankets to share. But our GSR expedition packing list definitely needs an upgrade...
Our first "official" meeting was with Elkana, the association of organic farmers, who have been reviving traditional varieties of wheat and fruits for decades, and are at the forefront of a gradual mainstreaming of agroecology in Georgia. Agriculture is struggling to find its feet
after both Soviet hierarchy and Green Revolution destroyed most of farmers' ecological knowledge and sensitivity. Now Georgia imports close to 80% of its wheat, which in times of geopolitical tension makes it very vulnerable. Elkana is promoting diversified rural livelihoods, including local food processing, agritourism and direct consumer linkages. But the scale is still very small. We exchanged stories and seeds with a group of farmers in Akhaltsikhe and noted with interest that the experience with labeling and certification in India could provide a warning to Georgia. Our message was basically: rely on relationships rather than 3rd party verification. But that's easier said than done if the consumer facing brands and retailers are not yet part of the movement. Time for a multi-stakeholder platform to convene such cross sector collaboration? There seems to be a strong basis in the pride people feel for Georgian gastronomy -of which we got a taster in the form of yummy pickled tomatoes, tandoori style bread and a dish called Erishta that even Google had not heard of (hint: find out in Elkana's regional recipe book for the Samtskhe–Javakheti region).
Coming from the Auroville Greenbelt we know a thing or two about communal living, reforestation, sustainable housing and energy. We shared our experiences at a public event in a vegan cafe in Tbilisi, and then with a dedicated core group of Ecovillage founders.
We used a combination of tools from the Global Ecovillage Network and social entrepreneurship incubation. Next month is going to be crucial as the group is looking for land and transforming their ideals into practice. Always exciting to imagine what could become of plots of land that once sustained small scale mixed farming and pastoralism. And equally scary to see corporate projects scooping up real estate taking advantage of the extraordinary diversity of micro-climates and habitats. What if the Green Silk Road could spread the practice of community land trusts, securing tenure for responsible stewards and regenerative land use?
On Earth Day we joined a mini clean-up campaign at an estuary in Poti, Georgia's main port on the Black Sea. We got excited seeing rangers of the National Park, but soon realised they were not there to help us collect trash but have a quick booze break. The local water sports guys were also not ready to add plogging to their exercise routine and simply walked past our massive collection of plastic waste. Ecological awareness seems to be low, which is a reminder that transition towards development models that are in harmony with nature needs to include education. Auroville-based waste-education games creators WasteLess gave us some games to test: a memory game to teach types of plastics and two games about segregation at source. Another GSR prospect would be to translate these into local languages, and adapt them to local contexts. No point separating your waste if the municipality chucks all your bins in a single heap afterwards...
After crossing the border on probably the busiest day of the year (the weekend of Eid) which felt rather similar to being on a Mumbai local train, we started the Turkish chapter of our story. Still recovering from the massive earthquake less than 2 months ago, most NGO's are involved in relief and rehabilitation work -either on site where 11 cities have been affected, some raised to the ground - or with the masses who got evacuated to the West of the country. We got connected to a collective called KAF -named after a mystical mountain from which the phoenix returned as a transformed being. KAF started as a direct response to the crisis, cooking food and fixing tents, then added more and more interventions, including building community spaces, playing areas for kids, offering education and entertainment, and their next step is solidarity economy.
Similar to in Georgia, here the local food traditions seem to offer a chance to rebuild a better society. KAF dreams of a worker owned enterprise that will produce and trade a range of snacks using local recipes, and another that will combine children's art with a particular style of knitting.
The politics of relief response can be disheartening and many actors are out to use the situation for their own gain. Being only weeks away from national elections everything seems to be political, so all bets are off to see what direction this inspiring grassroots initiative may take. Our hope is that the solidarity between urban progressives and the rural East will sustain and we might witness a unique combination of social entrepreneurial saviness with land-based community spirit. As one of the KAF founders said: everything is shaken up, the earth, the people, the institutions. As with shocks across the world that could open a path to less oppression and exploitation or more. Time will tell...
To the kids in the relief camp in Kahramanmaraş we offered creative activities that were perhaps a little too nuanced. Painting stones turned into a battle over brushes, art materials and "teacher" s attention, juggling turned into stone pelting. What didn't help was the fact that the kids spoke Arabic rather than Turkish, as most of them were migrants from Syria. So even local volunteers could not help us understand what was going on. We learned the hard way that the activity tent was there for a reason: it gave a semblance of order and stability where we could do activities with a bit more concentration, such as origami. It is such a joy to see children's eyes sparkle when they see their self-folded bird can flap its wings! Who knows the phoenix might actually become part of the story of transformation for this region?
At the basecamp where the volunteers stay, we were treated to some live music around the campfire, by a band called FungIstanbul, who play instruments made of upcycled waste. They had done an activity at the relief camp where kids collected waste and learned how to make shakers and drums. It was intriguing to see so many aspects of Regenerative culture come together: mushroom foraging, fusion music, upcycling and education. What if we could tour with groups like these overland across Eurasia? It would probably take some serious planning and coordination, but it's worth a try ; )
As the title of this post is "one third of the way" we will conclude this report with the 1/3 journey milestone which was our stay in Ankara. We got in touch with a democratic school called "Curious Cat" and finally managed to offer our activity of stencil painting. Inspired by the Endangered Crafts Mela in Auroville we prepared stencils using X-ray photo sheets which are sturdy enough while easy to cut. We intended to combine the printing with a session about migratory birds (being migrants ourselves) but this got lost in the hecticness of sorting out class schedules. Finally, all went well and we managed to create some gorgeous art work and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The spirit of the kids and teachers was invigorating and this felt like a great model for mainstream schools to complement regimental ways of teaching. Unlike the schools we are used to in Auroville which are either following government curriculum or not at all, this school manages to keep a foot in both systems, offering students exposure to both conventional and alternative education.
We were hosted by the gracious Alper, whose kids attend the Curious Cat, and whose partner turns out to be connected with the Nomade de Mer -Green Silk Road's sister project that uses sailing as a way to connect Low Tech innovators and curate their methods through a network of Low Tech Labs. How small and familiar is the world of likeminded travelers and weavers!